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Foras long as I can remember, I have had conversations with my father that wentsomething like this:
"How old are you now?"
"Eleven," I might reply.
And he would say, "I think I was15 when I was allowed to travel around the city alone."
Well, here Iam, 15 at last, and this summer was my first experience as an independent woman.Trains. Buses. Subways. I've ridden them all. By myself. This summer, I internedfor two great weeks in the Big Apple at the "Law and Order" offices atChelsea Piers. Two weeks might not sound like much, but I learned a lot.
Iwoke up that first morning to the alarm clock. An alarm clock in August? Iwondered. There must be some mistake. I soon remembered though, that today wasthe day that I was going to master New York City's publictransportation.
The train station was bustling with commuters just likeme, men in ties and women in heels trying desperately to get to work before theAugust heat set in. I stepped up to the ticket window and a mustached man lookedat me with a cocked eyebrow. Those before me had known exactly what to say, andI, a first-timer, was caught tongue-tied with foot-tappers, watch-checkers andthroat-clearers lined up behind me. The moment of truth was upon me, "GrandCentral," I muttered, "roundtrip."
"Seven-fifty," the man glared, as I rummaged for thefare.
On the train platform people were already lining the edge. Some,more rebellious, were even so eager for a spot on the train that they werestanding on the forbidden yellow line. I, not quite ready to brave the crowds fora position on the platform, leaned against a billboard and waited.
As thetrain rolled in, the commuters surged toward the opening doors like a wave, andI, like a frightened kid, stepped forward to take on the surf. I was elbowed andpushed as we were packed tightly in a herd trying to get onto the train. I wasovercome by cologne and perfume and, after finally getting pushed onto the train,I stopped to reassess my thoughts, only to be shoved again.
The train waspacked and I was tired, so I made a beeline for the nearest open seat. I spottedone between a sleeping woman and man I like to remember as Mr. Arms. I squeezedin between them and sat with my arms crossed trying to make myself as compact aspossible. Mr. Arms took as much space as possible, stretching out his legs andhis arms, and in folding his newspaper. He drank his coffee and used his cellphone, reorganized his briefcase and tied his tie, over and over, to get itperfect. And all the while, compact me was dodging elbows and shoulders. Thesleeping lady remained asleep.
As the train let out onto the GrandCentral platform, the heat hit me like a brick wall. People surged forward withurgency and I followed the wave into the center of all this madness. Glancing atmy mom's neatly written directions, I followed the signs to the shuttle thatwould take me to the heart of New York City: Times Square, where I would transferto a train that would take me downtown.
The bodies of more confidenttravelers whooshed past me, creating a wind that, in my confused state, couldhave toppled me. The footsteps of past and present travelers passing throughGrand Central echoed in my ears. Now my footsteps were among the millions who hadgone before.
I followed my fellow commuters down to the shuttle. Beneaththe Manhattan streets, it was hot and sticky. Suddenly the people around me beganrunning. In the distance I could see hordes of people trying to pack tightlythrough the closing shuttle doors. Panic overcame me. How soon would the next onecome? Would there be a next one? I began to sprint. A tall man inside the traincaught my eye and held the doors, vigorously fighting against them until I couldsqueeze through.
I smiled at him and took my seat. Just as I sat, tryingto catch my breath, the train pulled away. I saw a shuttle exactly like the one Iwas in pull up on the track across the way. I had panicked for nothing. Ipretended not to see it.
Suddenly the train slowed. I hadn't even had timeto count my stops! Oh no, I thought, where am I? "Excuse me," I asked awoman standing, ready to leave the train, "Is this the Times Squarestop?" The woman looked at me as if to say, How dumb can you be? I lookedaway from her glare.
"There's only one stop on the shuttle." Ithanked her in my most polite voice and stood to get out the door.
I founda secluded corner away from the swell of underground New York City. Myinstructions clearly stated that I should get on the Number 1 or the Number 9train for my destination. Two choices. This might present a problem. I followedthe signs. Just as I pulled up, so did the train. It was the 9; I got on andhoped for the best. As it turned out, I was on the right train. I took it twostops to 23rd street. My destination.
Finally out in the fresh summer air,I followed the street to the river. I figured Chelsea Piers would be on thewater, as piers usually are. As I got closer, I could see the Twin Towers loomingabove. They didn't seem menacing, more like they were protecting every person whohad ever walked the streets of New York. These brothers protected every touristand every commuter, of which I was now a part.
As I rounded the corner, Isaw the flag of victory - the white and red awning of the main office at ChelseaPiers. I had done it. I had navigated through the city, and was one step closerto being grown up. I was now a woman of the world. Unstoppable.